Chloe Mallot has been busy researching her “hero project,” dedicated to Lydia Taft, the first woman in the United States to legally vote. For an earlier assignment, she created a website about Minnesota’s endangered animals.

For Chloe, 10, and the other 74 students at Gateway Academy, projects aren’t just for art class or extra credit, they’re a main activity.

Gateway opened this year in the Farmington district and shares a progressive, personalized focus with the two-year-old Impact Academy in neighboring Lakeville. At both schools, students learn at their own pace with kids of different ages, pursue their own interests and create projects to show what they know. Impact has 185 students and a waiting list.

As parents demand options once available only at charter or private schools, or in big-city districts, providing creative alternatives is helping the districts retain and attract students, improving their bottom line.

Superintendents in Lakeville and Farmington say Gateway and Impact offer a glimpse of what the future of education might look like across the metro. Impact had 60 visitors last year, including educators from Stillwater, Osseo, Prior Lake and even Fargo, looking to see how it works.

“[Impact] is a little bit unique, but I think you’re going to see more of it,” said Lisa Snyder, Lakeville’s superintendent.

But other experts note that these types of progressive schools are nothing new. They come with a host of challenges, including assessment, that can keep them from surviving long-term.

“Parents and teachers want progressive education,” said Karen Seashore, a University of Minnesota education professor. “But perhaps we don’t know how to do it well enough and provide the kinds of support that teachers need … to allow it to persist over a long period of time.”

Yet both programs hope to expand next year, pending board approval.

“It’s about parent choice, and it’s about parents finding the best fit for their kids,” said Marilynn Smith, principal at Orchard Lake Elementary, home to Impact Academy. “I think the grade level model where everybody does the same thing doesn’t really meet all the kids’ needs [anymore].”

When he received a text message last year from a staff member about designing a new kind of school, Jay Haugen, Farmington’s superintendent, was instantly enthusiastic.

A similar story played out in Lakeville, where district teachers wanted to start a charter school where students learned at their own pace.

Snyder told them, “Why would you leave the district? We need that here.”

Both schools had no trouble finding students.

Gateway students, in grades four through six, inhabit four rooms in the District Service Center. The space has “café-style” furniture and low tables for group work. Many activities, including a recent lesson on computer coding, are done on laptops, and students are free to meander between rooms and finish assignments lounging on the floor. The four full-time staff members are “advisers,” not teachers.

Mary Treakle thought Gateway sounded like an interesting option for her son, Alex, 10, who can “get caught in the shuffle.”

At Gateway, Alex has ideas “coming out of everywhere,” like building an “Ironman” suit with a 3-D printer. And he’s taking more responsibility for his learning, she said.

Last year, Lakeville’s Impact served grades K-3, but added fourth and fifth grades this year, a process that was sped up to meet demand. Students work in an open space with soft seating in the old media center. A key concept is learning through community service, done through a schoolwide project. Last year, they had a book drive and built six “little free libraries.”

Libby Bonjean, an Impact fifth-grader, said she needed tutors to keep up before she switched schools. “So I feel like this is learning at your own pace and no one makes fun of you.”

Smith said Impact teachers love teaching students who are grouped by ability, not age, because everyone understands the lesson.

“Once [kids] actually connect to that idea that ‘I was behind, and now I brought myself back up,’ ” Smith said, “you can’t stop them.”

Progressive problems

Schools where students learn at their own pace and pursue their own interests were popular in the 1960s and ’70s, and many districts tried them, said Seashore, a professor who watched most of the schools fade away.

The Edina district has had two “continuous progress” programs for 30 years; Spring Lake Park has the Lighthouse School, a gifted program focused on personalization. Many metro-area charter schools use progressive ideas, as do Montessori and private Waldorf schools.

A common worry with such schools is that kids study only what they want, missing out on important skills, said Joe Nathan, director of the Center for School Change.

But Nathan, who helped start a progressive school in St. Paul decades ago, said that shouldn’t happen in a well-run program. One long-term study showed that students who attended progressive schools did better than their peers in college and life, he said.

But they aren’t for everyone, he cautioned.

Some parents and students find them confusing, and they are administratively difficult. Assessment can be hard, especially for teachers who weren’t trained to evaluate students learning different skills at varying times, Seashore said.

“It’s not just, ‘I’m going to treat every child as an individual.’ You also have to have some good methods for assessing student progress,” she said.

Teachers at both schools said students take standardized tests and other benchmark assessments. Kids know the standards and work toward them with teachers’ help.

Still, “You’re worried what’s going to happen to [test] results, and those are so public,” said Haugen.

Impact parent Tony Rasmussen said he’s happy with his daughter’s report cards, which indicate “modules” his daughter has mastered but don’t include letter grades.

“I have had concerns about [assessment],” admitted Jason Dean, parent of a Gateway sixth-grader. “I was more so curious to know how they did on standardized testing.”

Gateway students will get report cards twice a year, along with two conferences. Other measurements include portfolios, student reflection and narrative feedback.

Impact parents can see their kids’ progress online whenever they want, and technology tools help with assessment, Snyder added.

“I think the challenge, ultimately, is you can measure [students’ progress] with student achievement data, but it’s going to take a long time,” Smith said.

While the two districts designed their schools independently, both superintendents said they want to share what they’re learning with each other.

“Anytime someone in your area is doing something similar, it really helps you both,” Haugen said.